Sending A Message With Flying Feet

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Now that’s what I wanted to see: Lance Armstrong powering out of the start house to the roar of the crowd, and then returning less than seven minutes later to a top-three finish in the prologue. His preparations for the Tour were nearly flawless, and his performance this afternoon showed he intends to do everything he can to win the 2004 Tour de France.

With a few drops of rain hesitantly falling on the technical course in downtown Liège, Belgium, it looked like rain might impact the performances of big Tour favorites. Fortunately, the rain held off and by the end of the day, Lance finished second to a very young and talented Fabian Cancellara, and more important, opened up a little daylight between himself and Jan Ullrich, Tyler Hamilton, Iban Mayo, and Roberto Heras in the overall classification. Lance by no means gained enough time to cause his rivals serious concern, but his performance sends a significant psychological message that Lance is here to win and well prepared for the fight.

The prologue of the 2004 Tour de France favored risk takers and riders who maintain high cadences. Lance fits into the latter category more than the former, but he also knows it’s necessary to take some risks in order to win. While many people have realized the benefit of pedaling more quickly while climbing, there’s also a benefit to maintaining a high cadence through technical areas. There were several places in today’s 3.8-mile course where riders had to slow down significantly; the average speed for the top riders was over 31 mph, but there were corners where they were going as little as 10 mph. To go fastest through the whole course, it was important to be able to accelerate out of those slow corners as rapidly as possible.

It is easier to accelerate a small gear than it is to overcome the larger resistance presented by a bigger gear. Watching Jan Ullrich and Lance Armstrong on their time trial bikes, it’s clear that Ullrich pedals more slowly and is therefore using a bigger gear. On long, straight roads, his powerful style is very fast. In more technical terrain, it’s more difficult for him to handle changes in speed caused by corners. Considering both men needed to slow down to roughly the same speed for some of the tighter turns on the course, being able to get back to top speed more quickly between corners enabled Lance to complete the entire course with a lower time.

Lance is very pleased with his performance today, not only because he was second fastest, but also because he felt good in the process. It’s possible to get good results and still feel bad during the ride. While the result is still good, the experience leaves you wondering if you’ll continue to feel lousy, and when that feeling will be accompanied by a lousy performance. Today Lance rode a great prologue and he felt strong, fast, lively, and agile. Those are all good signs for things to come. .